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Hutchinson's Pinto moment 

click to enlarge Gov. Asa Hutchinson (file photo) - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Gov. Asa Hutchinson (file photo)

The Ford Motor Co. brought the Pinto to America's highways, even though it knew the car had serious safety problems. Indeed, Pinto after Pinto burst into flames in rear-end collisions, causing severe injuries and deaths. Ford's lack of moral and economic judgment brought shame to the company's brand for decades.

We're having our Pinto moment here in Arkansas. Our governor has decided to use midazolam during lethal injection, a drug that has failed spectacularly in execution after execution. Governor Hutchinson plans to administer this unreliable drug to eight men at a speed no state has ever come close to attempting: four days with two executions each, spread across 11 days: April 17, 20, 24, and 27.

Why the race to execute eight people before the month is out? On April 30, the state's supply of midazolam will expire. This is a drug that has fallen short so many times that some states won't allow it in their lethal injection protocols. But Governor Hutchinson doesn't want this failed drug to go to waste. Instead, he is setting up Arkansas for disaster.

Midazolam has been the culprit in many botched executions. Ohio executed Dennis McGuire with the drug in January 2014. Strapped to a gurney, McGuire gasped, snorted, and choked for almost half an hour. In April that year, Oklahoma injected midazolam into Clayton Lockett. Three minutes after the prison declared Lockett unconscious, and after they administered the drugs that cause excruciating pain, Lockett breathed heavily, clenched his teeth and strained to lift his head while writhing on the gurney. A few months later in Arizona, Joseph Wood gasped, snorted, and gulped for air for almost two hours. Last year, Alabama used midazolam on Ronald Bert Smith Jr. He was declared unconscious but then clenched his fists and tried to raise his head.

After their problems with midazolam, Arizona and Oklahoma put their executions on hold. A federal court in Ohio ruled that executions can't go forward using midazolam. Florida, an early adopter of midazolam, has stopped using it.

When states like Florida started using midazolam in lethal injection, they did so only because sodium thiopental was no longer available. For years, lethal injection began with a large dose of sodium thiopental to put the prisoner in a coma-like state before the administration of the next two drugs, which cause excruciating pain as they kill. The maker of sodium thiopental ceased manufacture of the drug following production problems. States tried other drugs as replacements, including midazolam. But this drug was never up to the task of producing a deep, coma-like state to block the pain of the drugs to come.

On top of midazolam's failure rate, the assembly-line pace required by the governor's plan will put great pressure on the staff involved in the executions, heightening the chance that this already risky drug protocol will go wrong. Oklahoma is a case in point — the state had been planning to execute a second man, Charles Warner, on the same night as Clayton Lockett. But from the start, Lockett's execution went horribly wrong. Prison staff couldn't place his IV, trying at least 16 times before placing it in his groin. Later in the procedure, the IV popped out, and when the supervising doctor attempted to put it back in, he punctured Lockett's artery. The result was, according to the warden, "a bloody mess," and the governor had to postpone the second execution of the night.

The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety later concluded that the stress of planning two executions in a day had caused the prison staff to make the mistakes that botched Lockett's execution.

Because of Lockett, Oklahoma no longer allows two executions to be scheduled for the same day. In fact, the state now requires a minimum of a week between executions. If Governor Hutchinson were following Oklahoma's model, the eight executions he has compressed into 11 days would take a minimum of eight weeks.

The governor's pace is so extreme that we don't need to speculate about whether one of the executions will be a botch. The question is just, "Which one?"

Governor Hutchinson must face the truth about midazolam and its track record of cruelty. He can stop this Pinto moment by calling off the 11 days of death and letting a failed drug expire in the trash can, where it belongs.

Rita Sklar is the executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, a founding member of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

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